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Seventh Circuit Makes Clear There are Limits to Reasonable Leave Under the ADA

A perpetual problem for Human Resource practitioners is determining how long a leave must be granted under the ADA.  The answer, in at least one federal circuit, is becoming clearer.  Earlier this year, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appeals court for Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, held that a multi-month leave of absence removes a person from protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

The ADA forbids discrimination against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.  A qualified individual is a person with a disability who with or without reasonable accommodation can perform the essential functions of the employment position.   In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., Raymond Severson was a fabricator of retail display fixtures.  In June 2013, he went out on Family Medical Leave to deal with serious back pain.  Throughout his leave, his doctors tried to relieve the pain but to no avail.  During this time, he remained in contact with his supervisor and human resources regarding his condition. 

In early August, prior to the expiration of his leave, he requested an additional three months of leave in order to have back surgery.  His surgery was scheduled on the day his FMLA expired.  The Company informed Mr. Severson the day before his FMLA was to expire that his request for additional leave was denied and that his employment with the Company would terminate when his FMLA expired.  They encouraged him to reapply in three months when he had recovered from surgery. 

Severson had the back surgery and recovered in three months as expected.  He did not reapply for his old job and instead sued the Company for failing to provide a reasonable accommodation.  The lower court granted the Company summary judgment and the Seventh Circuit affirmed. 

The Seventh Circuit made clear the ADA is an anti-discrimination statute, not a medical leave entitlement.  An employee who needs long term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a qualified individual under the ADA.   Therefore, long term medical leave cannot be a reasonable accommodation.  The Seventh Circuit reasoned an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work, it excuses his not working.  For this reasons, the Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment dismissing
Plaintiff’s claims. 

For employers, this case is good news.  However, employers must take it with a grain of salt.  First, it is only binding in the Seventh Circuit.  Second, the EEOC, as well as many state and local agencies, take the opposite position.  Therefore, employers should contact competent labor and employment counsel before terminating an employee who requests additional defined leave after he or she has exhausted FMLA.  Many employers have paid costly settlements and jury awards based on this exact scenario. 

Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as other civil rights issues and employment laws in general.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.4540560.